The Problem of Being Faithful

When I was in the One True Church, I lived in a Brother’s House.  This was where a bunch of us Christian guys lived together with a family so

By James N. McCord. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

that we could be made into godly men.  We did this by attending lots and lots of meetings and doing lots and lots of stewardships.

Stewardships are basically chores except stewardships sounds much more Biblical – especially if you read the King James Bible.  We had a notebook of index cards called standards.  Each standard gave instructions on how to do the stewardships.  Further, one of the brothers was appointed head-steward so he had the extra responsibility of checking our stewardships to see if they rose up to the standard.

If our stewardships didn’t meet the standard, we got consequences.  The purpose of consequences was to encourage us to take the time to do the stewardships perfectly in the first place by giving us even less time because we had to do our consequences in addition to our stewardships and all of the meetings.

Brother Faithful rarely got consequences.  He always seemed to joyfully uphold the standards.  He was up at five in the morning doing his Bible reading and prayer before we all stumbled out for house devotions.  He made sure we didn’t miss a speck when cleaning the bathroom sink and to finish it off by shining it up with a paper towel.  He made us sing while doing the dishes after dinner.

I, on the other hand, did get consequences.  In one case, my consequence was to work with another offending brother in taking hand-written recipes and typing them onto index cards.

To entertain ourselves, we wondered how creative we could be in our descriptions.  For example, instead of typing one teaspoon of salt, we put down one teaspoon NaCl which is the chemical symbol for sodium chloride better known as salt.  I was toying with the idea of putting in as a fake last step to the chef salad recipe to place all the ingredients in the blender and puree for ten minutes but the other offending brother reminded me such an act could result in doing consequences until Jesus returned.

One evening when the brothers returned from work, Brother Faithful was already in the kitchen making dinner.  He had a medium sized pot full of ice that he was heating up.

“What are you doing, brother?”  asked one of the brothers.

Brother Faithful showed us the recipe card and the place where the standard called for two cups of thawed ice.

We stifled a laugh, held our composure and went on our way.

I wonder if Brother Faithful ever pulled the recipe calling for three cups of condensed steam.

 

 

 

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men?

Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-1800’s, many in the church thought the world was getting better and better.  Society would improve and wrongs would be overcome through social action.  This transformation of society would bring in a new millennium that would usher in the return and reign of Christ.

The Civil War changed that.  Whatever hope people had for the gradual improvement of society and the bringing forth of a new age through social action was dashed at this display of the hardened conflict of ideals manifested in the vast carnage of man’s inhumanity to man.

Henry Longfellow was not as much caught up in the theology of the moment.  For the poet Longfellow, this was personal.  His wife of eighteen years died tragically in a fire.  Then his son Charles, without discussion or permission, left to join the Union army.   On Christmas Day in 1863, Henry Longfellow, torn between a cynical lashing out and a helpless need for comfort penned these word:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Lashing out in hurt and anger is part of the human experience.  I don’t always get what I want and my version of life does not always prevail.  For Longfellow, the war raged on;  his son was badly injured.

Nevertheless, the poem ends with Longfellow’s willingness to unclench his fist.  He was willing to listen to a voice that was not his own head and  to humbly acknowledge  Someone bigger and a narrative more transcendent.

In Search of the One True Santa Claus

Santa Claus in Chicago Douglas Rahden [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

As Christmas approached, my mom would take me to the month-end sales to try on clothes and visit the various Santa Clauses.  I don’t know what age it was when I moved from the innocent child in the sailor suit to a perceptive thinker and analyst of Saint Nick.

I reasoned that there could only be one true Santa Claus.  Yet I saw a plethora of Santa Clauses on our shopping circuit.  There was at least one in every department store.  Other Santa Clauses were outside ringing bells.  They were on television and in parades.  They were everywhere.

I asked Santa (at least one of them) while sitting on his knee chatting about my needs and wants, why there were so many Santa Clauses.  His reply: “I’m the real Santa Claus.  Those others are my helpers.”

My mom was a depression-era trained bargain hunter, so we hit up several stores looking for sales in the holiday season.  This gave me the opportunity to hook up with several Santa Clauses.  I asked each one the same question and they would all give the same answer – I’m the real one; the others are my helpers.

I wasn’t a math major yet but I knew that only one could be telling the truth.  The

By Florida Memory (Child Looking at Santa on the Beach) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

others were liars.  How do I find the one true Santa?

The bell ringers were definitely helpers, perhaps working their way up the ranks to human interaction.  To analyze the sitting Santa Clauses fielding the multitudinous requests of expectant and earnest children that fueled the North Pole order fulfillment, behavior QC, and supply chain management, I needed a sharper technique to determine the wheat from the tares.

I found that after I communicated my gift list and Santa embarked upon his morality soliloquy about being nice and helpful and all that, I could study his beard.  If I figured out how it stuck on, then he was another fake.  One used lip tape.  The other used some sort of string netting I wasn’t supposed to see that tied behind his neck.  As I marched back to my mother who was declining the photo package, I would proudly inform her, “He wasn’t the real one.”

My theory was that the real Santa was the one at the fire station.  This Santa Claus was upscale.  He always gave the children a chocolate covered marshmallow Santa figure, not those small peppermint candy canes that required work, sucking, and get stuck in your teeth.  Everyone knows that chocolate trumps hard candy every time.

Further,  he was not tied to a store trying to lure you in to buy perfume and neck ties and a photo package.  At the fire station, they had a lawn full of lights and decorations.  It just felt different and more sincere than the department store Santa crammed behind the Sears insurance booth.

It was like magic as I waited in line among the lights to see the fire station Santa.  I walked by the reindeer, the giant gum drops, and the helping elves.   I went forward and sat on Santa’s knee.

“Hello, David,” he said, “How are you?”

I was flabbergasted and astounded!  “How did you know my name?”  I asked.

“Because,” he said, “I’m Santa Claus.  I know everything.”

Wow!  I was in astonishment as pondered out into the distance.  As I adjusted my gaze, I saw my mother pointing to her shoulder.  I looked down to my shoulder and saw the forgotten paper name tag that said  “David”.

That’s was when I jumped up on his knee, pulled his beard, stared into his beady brown eyes and yelled, “You lying son of a . . .”

OK, I really didn’t do that.  I told him my toy list as they snapped my photo.  I took my chocolate marshmallow Santa and walked with mom to the car.  I felt a little silly that I had forgotten about the name tag.

Some time later, my mom told me there was no Santa – that he was just a story.  My brother came to me later and asked,  “So, they hold you, huh?”

“Yeah,” I replied feeling as if I was supposed to be more devastated than I was.  But I wasn’t sad or disappointed. I had this gig figured out long before and it was really about time that we all agreed to drop the narrative.  It had been a nice way to choose toys but there never seemed to be a correlation between behavior and the quality of gifts that were always labeled “From Santa” in my mom’s handwriting.

No longer would I have to be put to bed for an hour on Christmas eve so they could let Santa in through the front door (a slight modification to the story since we didn’t have a fireplace) only to be allowed back out to a room full of relatives getting tipsy on egg nog while we opened our Christmas eve presents.

I’m not sure if forming an early belief in Santa Claus only to have it dismantled made me better or worse.   But it was fun while it lasted.

Why Am I Not Enjoying the Christmas Season?

By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands ([36/365] Christmas bokeh) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands ([36/365] Christmas bokeh) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My holiday season is filled with fun activities – a parade, concerts, dinners, and a carol sing, for example –  and I really want to enjoy them.  Yet it all feels like burdensome work and another item on the tyrannical task list.  Will our house be ready?  Will the bills be paid?  What gift will I find for this person or that?   And we need that final edit and photo for the family newsletter!

Charlie Brown’s angst of Christmas losing its meaning is old news.  After all, we live in a culture where, if anything, Christmas means too much – there is no end to Christmas specials helping us understand the multitudinous  pitches of “the true meaning of Christmas.”

Nevertheless, that isn’t where the problem lay.  Blaming culture is a cop out.   If I am disturbed, says an annoying quote from recovery circles, the problem is with me.

Current  Advent readings draw me back to what is true and substantive.   Unlike our Western propensity to see this dispensation solely as sparkle season, the Advent readings actually pull us to  a place of sparseness looking ahead with expectation but examining our hearts to question:  Is everything right?

Case in point is this morning’s reading highlighting John the Baptist in the deserted wilderness:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” says John as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

Contemplative Christian spirituality is often seen in terms of attachments.  We are surrounded in culture with the prolific voices that are not God clamoring for our attention.  When these driving voices begin to take hold of our hearts enlarging beyond degree our attention on the trivial and the narrow, they become attachments.  When these attachments become strong bonds, they are called addictions.

Here are the major attachments so says some very smart Christians:

  • Wealth – My need to be secure.
  • Honor – My need to be well thought of.
  • Power – My need to be in control.
  • Pleasure – My need to feel good.

None of these things are necessarily bad in and of itself – we all by necessity experience all of these to some degree.  The problem comes when they become so enmeshed in my heart that I am completely given to the distraction and tangential and have completely lost sight of my call to love God with all my hearts, soul and strength and to love my neighbor as myself.

The American holiday season exacerbates the problem of attachments for me.  The extra expenses draws me to be preoccupied with money and making sure everything is budgeted correctly (Wealth).   In social gatherings, I want people to listen to me and think highly of my input (Honor).   I have a large task list of items that need to be done and I want the ability to move people to action or out of my way so I can accomplish my goals (Power).  In my weariness, I want these events to help me feel better, give me a thrill and help my tired soul feel human (Pleasure).

When these attachments don’t deliver the promised satisfaction, I find myself in a daze wondering when the whole, damn holiday season will be over with.

This is why John’s voice from the desert is such a clarifying voice:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”   When did Advent stop becoming the quiet anticipation for the coming King who sets all things right?  When did Advent suddenly become all about me and my responsibilities?

Bishop Robert Barron says, “Repentance means stop thinking about life as my project.  Start thinking that my life is not about me.  My life belongs to God and serves God’s purposes.  

“All my diversions and attachments are subservient to the idea that my life is all about me; my life is a project of self-satisfaction.”

In the quiet desert morning where John’s exhortations are taken to heart, I look up with a new hope,  I hear the distant promise, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light”.  Advent tells me it is not about me.  Advent tells me there is forward-looking hope that transcends the clutter and the chatter.

Bishop Robert Barron’s full sermon may be found here.